Q: I have worked closely with a colleague for more than six years. Each time I thought I knew her, she changed personalities. She started out as kind and helpful, always willing to recommend me to the boss and bring me in on her projects. She was working at a higher level than I was, so I greatly appreciated the recommendations because I was always learning new things. I pushed myself to perform at a higher level than many of my co-workers. I worked hard and long hours because I never wanted to disappoint anyone on the team. Word spread, and more of her colleagues asked for me to be on their projects. I continued to advance in my level of work, and I became known as someone who could learn anything — someone to be counted on no matter what the work involved. I put work first and let nothing interfere.
The woman who championed me turned from nice to controlling and authoritative. Her advice turned from helpful insider hints to arrogant put-downs, as if she had to assert herself so I would know she was higher up in the hierarchy than I was. I ignored her attitude change; I was still appreciative for having always been recommended. I'm the kind of person who never forgets anyone who helps me along the way. But after a few more years, she changed again, only this time she turned into a negative, arrogant control freak — one I could not tolerate.
I always was a high achiever, and it seemed like my ability angered her. I never responded or retaliated, but I distanced myself once I saw this personality change. I joined teams that were not hers so as to keep my distance and protect myself from her nasty behavior. I am uncomfortable having an adversary at work, but I won't subject myself to her nastiness. How do I end this war she has created? I don't like drama and negativity, but ignoring her has made me feel very uncomfortable and awkward.
A: Jealousy is an ugly character trait, but it sounds like it's one she was not aware she had. Your high performance level may have shocked her, and though she clearly wanted to help you in the beginning, she did not want your success and respect at work to surpass hers.
Invite her to a fun and casual lunch under the guise of not getting a chance to talk much at work. Don't announce you have something you'd like to talk about: Such a warning will signal something is up or could possibly be stressful enough that she will not accept.
Make this a friendly, social lunch where you express your appreciation for all she has done. Many reasons could stir jealous feelings. She may feel you never thanked her for the many projects she invited you to join; she may feel that although she is a higher rank than you, you may be more likable than she is; she may also have heard many positive comments about you from her colleagues and inwardly feels less valuable than you.
Snarky behavior doesn't appear for no reason. Her exterior may seem poised and confident, but your success may have broken down her false sense of security. Maintain your calm and casual attitude throughout your conversation. It may disarm her to see that you want to be friendly, so reaching out to her socially may be all she needed. She may open up and admit she hasn't been as friendly as she would like, so let her talk and release all that's going through her mind.
Hopefully the damage can be undone, and you both can experience the once-pleasant work relationship. A warm, friendly conversation can soothe a myriad of problems and misunderstandings, so look forward to resuming your previous work relationship with her based on respect. Some people need more reassurance than others, but in the end, everyone just wants to be accepted.
Email your workplace issues and experiences to [email protected] For more information about career and life coach Lindsey Novak, visit www.lindseyparkernovak.com, and for past columns, see www.creators.com/read/at-work-lindsey-novak.